Director: John Carpenter
Starring: Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Charles Hallahan, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat, Kurt Russell
Runtime: 109 minutes
We go from human, psychological- or spiritual-based horror, to creature-based physical horror. Although the story of an alien that comes to Earth and can imitate the form of any living being has a nominal science fiction aspect, this film relies much more on horror than similar films, notably the Howard Hawks The Thing from Another World (1951). This is not a remake of the Hawks film, although apparently Carpenter loved that movie (incorporating scenes from it in Halloween), it is a much different imagining. For one thing, Hawk’s creature is an anthropomorphic blood-drinking vegetable (you read that right—a man-shaped vampire-vegetable). For another, the humans are much more in control of the situation.
The thing starts out brilliantly—we’re introduced to the snowy white desert of Antarctica, and see a sled dog being chased by some (seemingly) crazy Norwegians. The dog finds its way to some American scientists, wagging its tail, licking them, and appearing all around innocent. The baffled Americans—one of the most testy ones, Macready (Kurt Russell), having just dumped his whiskey into his computer because it beat him at chess—side with the infected dog. This just starts to show you how inept this film says our human pretensions to knowledge and science are. (We never, by the way, find out just what the hell they’re researching all the way down in Antarctica.) One of the scientists, Blair, figures out sooner than the others what’s really going on, but instead of helping him figure out how to defeat the threat, it drives him bonkers—there’s a great scene in which he’s trashing the radios and shooting at people, a great performance from Wilford Brimley, of all people (a far cry from Grandpa in Our House). Keith David, who plays Childs, also deserves mention; he plays the seemingly more calm and collected foil to Blair’s craziness and MacReady’s paranoid and obsessive need for control. David would go on to play opposite Roddy “Rowdy” Piper in Carpenter’s They Live!, another alien invasion film, and of course Russell appears in a number of Carpenter’s other works. While all the actors are great, the characters are a bit thin—we don’t get to know them that well, and this lessens the fun of repeated viewings for me.
The human paranoia drama is done well, if nothing new. So what makes this movie stand out besides the performances, music, and cinematography (courtesy of Dean Cundey, who also worked on Halloween, The Fog, and Escape from New York), are the spectacular and disturbing special effects by Rob Bottin and his crew. Like An American Werewolf in London, we see some gruesome transformation scenes, as the alien does not simply imitate life forms, but actually dissembles, absorbs, and reforms itself as them. We get some bizarre sequences, like where a head sprouts spider-like legs, that make the gore and designs an almost abstract thing.
Now with a cult following, the film did not do well on its release. Carpenter blames this on the recent release of E.T., which drew crowds with a much sweeter and heart-warming picture of human-extraterrestrial interaction. It would be interesting to examine the place of this movie within “alien invasion” movies of the time, and horror in general. Alien came out in 1979, giving us a similarly parasitic type. The majority of horror films between the 1950s and 1980s, though, seem to have shifted their focus to more human or spiritual type of villains, instead of the “creature”/invader type. After The Thing, there were a number of successful alien-oriented horror movies, all of them taking different tacks: there were, of course, the Alien sequels, starting with Aliens in 1986; the campy Critters (also 1986), which spawned its own sequels; we all known Predator (1987), more of an action film than either sci-fi or horror; and perhaps one of the few movies as horror-oriented as The Thing, the more obscure The Hidden (1987). And then we get the absurdities of the remake of The Blob (1988) and Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988). I don’t know what these transformations mean, but I wonder if they reflect social attitudes or trends in cinema generally?